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Continental drift

By James Ruhland
web posted March 22, 2004

After the terrorist strike on Madrid and the Spanish election that resulted in the replacement of Aznar's Popular Party with a Socialist government, many Americans expressed their disappointment in no uncertain terms. It was called a "rout", some suggested that the Spanish electorate had submitted to terrorism, even it was even said they had gone into the polls "on their knees." The accusations all implied a show of European cowardice. But the problem isn't the lack of fortitude on the part of the majority of Spanish voters, or even Europeans, compared to Americans. The difference on the two sides of the Atlantic is perhaps worse.

Spain's population has faced terrorism for some time. Members of the Spanish government are routinely threatened by ETA and other groups. They have not responded to this with craven submission. The same is true of many other European governments. The problem isn't fear, but a different attitude on how to respond to terrorist threats. European experience in Spain and elsewhere is with terrorism by internal separatist sects or violent ideological extremists like the Red Brigades in Italy, Germany's Baader-Meinhof Gang, and November 17th in Greece. The response to these groups was to deny them their demands, isolate them, wear them out and round them up with investigative efforts and internal police & paramilitary action. The lesson they took from this experience in how to deal with external, Islamic and Arabic terrorism was similar. They believe what is required was patient, targeted action aimed at the cells themselves and finding ways to isolate them from those that might identify with them, to deny them the possibility that an over-reaction would lead to widespread support.

The problem is that applying the lessons from their handling of domestic terrorism to external groups has not worked. But the European populations are not persuaded that this is the case. It may be obvious to most Americans that this method cannot work if the terrorists have sanctuaries in countries in which to indoctrinate, recruit, and train new generations of terrorists. There are Islamic terror groups operating under a variety of names, in small cells. This makes them seem superficially similar to the terrorist bands that European nations have dealt with in the past. But these groups are networked, ideologically, in funding, and in means and goals. The traditional methods that allowed Greece to render November 17th impotent before they captured them last year will not work with the Radical Islamic terror network tied to al-Qaeda.

A number of European leaders see that and agreed with the American approach to the war as outlined by the Bush Administration. Tony Blair in Britain is one such, and Aznar in Spain was another. The problem is that the majority of their populations were never persuaded that this is the correct approach. There are a variety of reasons for that, but it doesn't boil down to cowardice on the part of the typical European voter. It's an ideological divide, and its source is the information the typical European receives. While sometimes the European press can surprise you with pieces like this one in the Economist, for the most part they present things in ways that makes the bias of the American press seem mild by comparison. But there are failings on the part of our side, too. The result was the outcome of Spain's elections. The Spanish electorate didn't vote to give in to terrorism. They voted against an approach to the conflict they were never persuaded was right.

Tony Blair has given speech after speech explaining the rationale behind the war and what is at stake. But he has credibility problems with his own electorate, for a variety of reasons going back to his rise to the leadership of the Labour Party. The manner in which Aznar handled the aftermath of the Madrid bombings was at least as strong a factor in the election outcome as the bombings themselves -- a lesson Bush should learn. Candor is much better than the alternative. America itself has not been very effective in persuading countries to stay the course. Here I am not speaking of placating pseudo-allies like France, which was against the war for their own reasons, their palms having been greased in the UN's Oil for Cash program. But Spain's government stood beside ours all the way, and it's worth looking at why they're shifting. Our Secretary of State is one of the least widely-traveled Secretaries of State in modern history, at a time when active diplomacy is at a premium. Powell has considerable respect abroad, and a visit from the Secretary of State can mean a lot. But at times he seems to prefer to bask in the adulation of being the "dissident voice" at home more than he does the job of promoting our policies abroad.

Does it matter? Can't the U.S. do what needs to be done on its own? In the end, that may be what it takes. Certainly if we're alone in undertaking what needs to be done, that doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. We can take a lesson from Churchill's Britain in 1940, and be willing to stand alone if that is where we find ourselves. But if we're to take a lesson from Churchill, it should be the whole lesson. Churchill did not mean that because the British Empire -- remember, Britain always had the support of the Dominions -- was alone after the fall of France, that meant Britain should throw in the towel and go along. But Churchill also never ceased in his efforts to persuade the U.S. and other countries that they had a stake in the fight, too. We did, and the European countries do as well. They are at least as threatened by this as we are.

That is what needs to be emphasized. The threat is different now. It may have been one thing when the danger was limited to small groups blowing up a disco or downing an airplane. That was bad enough, but the potential danger the larger, ideologically-committed and intransigent terror network of the Islamic Radicals poses is on a different order of magnitude.

There are a variety of structural reasons -- fiscal, demographic, and cultural -- why the nations of Europe will not be able to contribute large support in the effort, even if persuaded. But continuing support, and greater support, is valuable none the less. It may be impossible to get it. It should be obvious by now that the two sides of the Atlantic Alliance are drifting apart over many issues, for multiple reasons. There is an example of that drift, which is not flattering to Americans. Following Europe's 3/11, the American reaction was generally similar to that of Europe's to our 9/11. Except for those of us who are strongly focused on the war, America largely responded with some sympathy, a good deal of "we told you so", but little fellow-feeling of all being in this together. The impact of the 3/11 over here was as deeply felt as 9/11 was over there -- that is, not very deeply.

It's important to look at the real reasons why the Spanish electorate responded to 3/11 as they did, why Europe is responding as they are, and also why America is or is not responding to it in the same way. The different responses have little to do with cowardice -- or indifference. But they tell us a lot about the state of the Atlantic alliance. We may find ourselves taking the next steps in this war alone, and we'll have to do it if that's what it takes to win. But it will be a lonely fight.

Getting through the tangle of the European press to persuade the European voter will certainly be an obstacle, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't make the strongest effort possible to explain why this is their fight too, and it needs to be waged with force, actively, if it is to be won. Churchill never gave in with his efforts, and history proved him right.

James Ruhland is the author of the blog Porphyrogenitus.

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